Tallinn, Estonia – January 5, 2015
Our flight from Frankfurt, Germany to Tallinn, Estonia took about two, uneventful hours. We landed around 16:30, but it was already quite dark, snowy, and cold. We walked from the gate to the baggage claim area and began our wait.
The various bags continued around and around on the carousel. I noticed the man I had met in Frankfurt standing at one end of the carousel. Shortly, he and his wife retrieved their bags and headed for the exit. Meanwhile, Leslie and I continued to wait. Finally, Leslie’s bag showed up, but mine did not emerge from the bowels of the airport. We took what bags we had and exited the terminal to meet our Embassy driver. We told him of the missing baggage. He went with us to the baggage counter to file a claim for the missing bags.
We left the warm confines of the terminal and braced against our first bout of winter in several years. It was freezing for two people that have spent the last couple of years in a Caribbean climate.
On the way to our apartment, the driver went by the Embassy. That was so I would have some idea of how to walk to work the next morning.
Another five minutes, and he dropped us at the apartment. It was only about one-half mile from the Embassy, at Tuvi 12/2. The apartment had three bedrooms and a commanding view of the Baltic Sea to the northwest. There were also two terraces, one off the breakfast area and one off the living room area. At the entry, there was a powder room. Just down the hall from the powder room in one direction was a full bathroom. Down the hall, the other way was a room with a Jacuzzi tub, shower enclosure, and sink. That room also opened on to the living room terrace. Beside the shower was the entry to the sauna.
All of the bathroom areas, as well as the front entry, had tile floors, all heated by in-floor hot water loops. The sauna became my morning coffee room, at least for my first cup.
When I arrived at the office the next morning, I got into my work email. It is worth noting at this point that we had been waiting for our Pakistan visas since March 24, 2014. When I opened my work email account, I saw an email that had the timestamp of 16:30 the previous day, stating I had my visa and Leslie’s would follow shortly. How ironic I finally received my Pakistan visa when we landed in Estonia!
After finishing the workweek, Leslie and I decided to take Saturday to explore Old Town Tallinn. We walked the three quarters of a mile from our apartment to Old Town. Since it had rained a little the previous night, some spots were very slick with ice. Just entering the Old Town area, we saw an outdoor ice-skating rink. I found it interesting that every song played was from the United States, circa the 1950s and 1960s.
We made it to our destination, Town Hall Square, where a Christmas market was on its final day. I understand it ran into January because of the Russian Orthodox Church calendar. Regardless of why, the market held many sights and experiences. To begin our shopping experience, we bought some of the obligatory warm wine, known as Glögg. At about a 25% alcohol level, the wine packed a punch.
As we wandered around, we bought several trinkets and souvenirs to bring back with us. One of the items I purchased was wild boar sausage. Later that evening, it went quite well with our wine. It did not have a gamey taste. It had a somewhat summer sausage taste with a very definite smoky flavor.
The town hall building had some unique rain downspouts; they looked like a green dragon. They stick out from the building quite far. I would hate to walk under them during a shower because the spouts looked large in diameter. On the side of the building, I saw a religious painting surrounded by the masonry of the building, something one would not see in the United States on a public building. I saw a nativity scene on the side of the building too, but that was much less surprising. Lastly, an attractive young woman was sitting on the steps with a friend, just strumming a guitar. I thought that made a good photo.
The cityscape in and around Old Town is unique. The home and buildings sport a variety of pastel colors. That, combined with the sharply pitched, red tile roofs make for a quaint scene. Many of the refrigerator magnets sold in the tourist shops mimic those scenes.
At about noon, we finished our shopping and looked for a lunch spot. At random, we selected the “Old Estonia” restaurant, overlooking the Town Hall Square. Lunch started with smoked salmon rolls with a cream cheese filling. A little bit of lemon and fresh dill topped off the rich but delicious course. At the same time, Leslie ordered each of us a large mug of beer… a one-liter beer! At first, I could barely raise the glass containing Saku beer, a locally brewed variety.
Our main course consisted of roast pork with French fries (seapraad friikartuliga). That had to have been the best pork I have had in quite some time. The plate had a bed of large, flat French fries and four very thick and generous slices of pork. The accompanying reddish-clear sauce complemented the pork well. Neither of us could eat it all. We took a large portion home for dinner.
After lunch, we stopped in the Town Hall Pharmacy, the oldest continuously operating pharmacy in all of Europe. I got in on the last of a tour, but I did not hear anything substantial about the shop other than the board game inlaid in the tile floor. They had copies of the game for sale. I opted not to buy one. Outside the pharmacy, mounted on the wall, is the iconic sign. It was a must for a photo.
Above the pharmacy was an antique store. I went up the stairs to check it out while Leslie waited below. In the antique store, I found an early 20th century Russian Orthodox crucifix, made entirely of brass. I bought it for Leslie to add to her cross collection.
Essentially behind the pharmacy is the Holy Spirit Church. It is a Lutheran church dating to the 14th century. I wanted to see it because on the face of the church, just above the main entry door is a clock. It is the oldest timepiece in Tallinn. For one Euro each, we entered the church. Some of the woodcarvings inside are amazing — the altar, painted by Bernt Notke, dated from the 15th century.
At about 15:30, when we left the church, it was getting dark. As we walked through Freedom square, on the way back to our apartment, we came upon a candlelight vigil for the Charlie Hebda massacre in Paris. At the time, we did not know what was happening because we had yet to hear the news of the tragedy.
We made it back to our apartment that evening without any of the icy treacheries of the morning walk.
When we awoke on Sunday, we saw that it snowed overnight. From the apartment, it appeared that three or four inches had fallen. Regardless of the snow, we set out for the Russian Orthodox St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. A church we had a good view of from our bedroom window. On our way, we saw a bust of Johan Pitka in a small park. He was a Rear Admiral responsible for forming the Estonian Navy.
Nearing the church, we saw dozens of people going inside. We figured it must be time for mass, so we decided to take a detour. We ended up at the Maiden’s Tower, hoping to have a coffee in the cafe. Unfortunately, it was closed. Near the tower, down several stairs, we saw a sign for the LT Kohvik-baar. We descended the steep stairs and went inside. When we entered, we found ourselves in an entryway with a couple of doors and a steep staircase leading down one more level. We could tell we needed to navigate those stairs to get to the coffee/bar. The handrail of the stairs consisted of a thick rope strung through several iron eyelets. A knot before each hole kept the rope from ending up in a heap of hemp at the bottom of the stairs. The handrail offered virtually no assistance on the descent. It seemed better suited as a lifeline with which to pull oneself back to the surface when exiting.
Nevertheless, we found ourselves in what may have been a cellar storage vault or a dungeon some 600 to 700 years prior. Before entering the vault, one passed by a small bar from which the served beverages emanated. We both had a coffee.
The only furnishings consisted of nine or ten tables with chairs. The vault had a half-round structure, built entirely of stone blocks. At its highest point, the ceiling could not have been more than eight feet high. One lone window poked through the stone wall. The windowsill, sides, and header tapered down through the two-foot thick wall to its final dimension of roughly ten inches square. The hand-rolled glass made it difficult to see well through the window. It all made for a very quaint an intimate space. Besides the server/bartender and us, no one else was in the establishment. I do not know if that was due to the storm or the fact that it was a Sunday morning.
Leaving the coffee bar, we carefully made our way back up to the cathedral. We found the front of the church faces the Estonian Parliament building. The stairs to the cathedral were very steep and, without handrails of any sort, rather treacherous in the continuing snowstorm. At the top of the stairs, we saw through the windows in the doors that everyone inside was standing. We assumed the mass was over, so we walked inside. I was instantly stunned by the ornate beauty of the church. While it dates from about 1900, it feels like a structure three or four times as old. My disappointment at not being able to take photos nearly left me grumpy.
The church has no pews. Instead, nearly everyone stood in a large circle. The large circle of people surrounded another, smaller circle, which happened to be a choir. Boys and girls ranging in age from 10 to 16, all dressed in traditional Russian costumes, made up the choir. The songs appeared to be Russian Christmas carols.
Walking around the circle, we finally made it to a good vantage point. There, in the center of the ring, sitting on one of the only chairs in the church, sat the priest. He was lost in the enjoyment of the singing. As we stood watching him, the choir began to sing Silent Night, the first pass in Russian and the second in English. It was so beautiful and moving that it nearly brought tears to our eyes.
While the choir sang, we walked around just a little. The level of decoration was incredible, particularly on the screen separating the people from the altar. During the mass, the priests conduct much of the service from behind the screen, out of view of those gathered.
We noticed two beautiful icons as we wandered around, both depicted Mary and baby Jesus. They were each about two feet by three feet in size. The faces and hands were painted in oils, while the remainder of the figures and background were ornately done with silver. Those made each piece look quite impressive. In front of each piece, as well as maybe another dozen icons were brass stands. The stands had a circular bit on top, each with multiple small candleholders. The candles were about 3/8 of an inch in diameter and six to eight inches long. As we watched, many people approached the icons with a candle, made the sign of the cross several times, bowing each time, and lastly lighting the candle and placing it in a holder. The candle stands provided an ambiance I had never seen before.
The snow came down much harder as we left the cathedral. Just to the north of the church, we found a souvenir shop that seemed to specialize in amber jewelry. On the front door, I saw a sign; Kodak tooted. Being a male, I had to take a photograph. What could be better than international fart jokes?! I looked it up later. In Estonian, that phrase translates roughly to; Kodak sold here. Regardless, I thought it was funny. In the store, Leslie found an amber charm for her Pandora bracelet and an amber ring.
Another block or two north brought us to our final planned destination for the day, the Dome Church, located on the Kiriku Plats. It is also known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary the Virgin, currently the seat of the Lutheran Church in Estonia, dating from some time before 1233. Entering the church, one sees seemingly endless coats of arms hung on the walls and building columns.
We paid two Euros each to enter. The attendant said I could take all of the photos I wanted, with or without flash in small part, that made up for my disappointment in the Russian Orthodox cathedral. In years past, when noblemen died, the hand carved coats of arms accompanied the casket and procession through town to the church. Once at the church, a crypt in the floor received the coffin, while the coat of arms hung on a wall or building column as close as possible to the place of burial.
Both the altar and the pipe organ in the church were spectacular, but the coats of arms stole the show.
The snowstorm had increased in intensity yet again as we left the church. Walking along the sidewalk, we saw a small frontend loader scooping snow and dumping it in a small dump truck. That activity had to take place, or the roads in Old Town would quickly become impassible.
We continued to another set of steep stairs. At the top of the stairs, we found the LB bar. We decided to go in, have a glass of wine, and warm-up. We sat by a small fireplace; unfortunately, it was not lit, maybe because we were the only two in the bar.
At the bottom of the stairs, after leaving L8, we entered Hindricus Pood – Galerii. I bought some beautiful handmade postcards done on handmade paper. The building, not the gallery, has been around since 1393.
When we left the gallery, the snowstorm was now a blizzard. We fought our way to the grocery store. After we purchased what we needed, we called a taxi and headed home to the warmth of our heated tiles and wonderful sauna.
After my last Friday in the Embassy, I walked to the National Opera Theater. It has a unique parking arm that looks like a hand holding a baton. From a photographer standpoint, it was a must-see. Walking home from there, I took the opportunity to take some random photographs; including St. John’s church at Freedom Square, some of the street trolleys, a boutique sign, and an advertising sign. All had a definite Tallinn charm.